SF Sketchfest is a remarkable phenomenon. Started as a vehicle for a handful of local sketch comedy troupes to package gigs together, it has grown into an immense annual event. Now in its twelfth year, it boasts a truly exhausting lineup of comedic talent in a whopping 166 shows at venues all over San Francisco over the course of three and a half weeks. Seriously, if I were to list just the big names involved, from Drew Carey to Kevin Smith, that would take up all available space in this post.
The fest kicked off last Thursday at the Castro Theatre with RiffTrax Presents: Night of the Shorts IV: Riffizens on Patrol. RiffTrax is the gang from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 -- Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett -- still heckling movies, but without robot puppets and with more contemporary flicks in the mix. The array of short educational films they lined up to mock, however, ranged from the 1970s way back to the 1930s.
The subjects included kids doing interpretive movement based on toasters and washing machines, learning the unintentionally suggestive Heimlich maneuver, teaching kids not to be jerks by putting them in clown makeup, helping 1940s housewives learn cooking terminology so they won't be flummoxed by recipes, making art with toilet-paper tubes, and the dangers of hand-washing your clothes in gasoline in your home as opposed to taking them to a reputable dry cleaner. Also included was one film that was pretty clearly meant to be funny, not instructive, but in that dry '70s style that's easily mistaken for earnestness. Welcome Back, Norman chronicles a groaning sad sack's struggle to get out of a crowded airport parking lot.
The RiffTrax gang had a lot of guest commentators who joined them one at a time (except Sketchfest cofounders Cole Stratton and Janet Varney, who went up as a duo). Among the riffers were Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall, Adam Savage of Mythbusters, Paul F. Tompkins of Mr. Show, and Kristen Schaal of 30 Rock.
The shorts were well chosen in that they were pretty ludicrous on their own, with or without commentary. The pre-scripted wisecracks were hit-or-miss, but they did what they were supposed to do: the lame ones blended into the background while the zingers accentuated the hilarity of the films themselves. Running gags were often the best: the existential ruminations of the sad clown on the playground, the litany of things exploding in the dry-cleaning propaganda film. "My house! My mountain!"
There are several imitators of this format in the fest, such as The Benson Movie Interruption or the homegrown Bad Movie Night, which does the same thing at the Dark Room on any given Sunday (though not, as far as I know, with Any Given Sunday).
I usually favor sketch comedy and improv events when I go to the festival, because, duh, it's Sketchfest. But there are a ton of standup shows as well, and on Friday I caught two of them back-to-back on opposite sides of town. (You'd think a place called the Verdi Club would be in North Beach, but no, it's in Potrero Hill.)
First up at 8p.m. was Paul F. Tompkins and Friends Real and Fake. The unassuming Verdi Club looks like the old community hall it is, with a tiny stage set into the wall. A Sketchfest regular, the mustachioed comic did half the evening himself, with a guest coming in to do a brief set between each of his bits.
After a hilarious opening monologue riffing on the decor, each time he came on it was in character as real-life celebrities, all portrayed as egomaniacs with ludicrously broad accents. First he was musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, dripping with disdain for actors and audiences, and basically everything that isn't him. Then he was TV sitcom creator and fluff-film director Garry Marshall, boasting about how he's going to capture Bigfoot and charge people to touch it. Last he took on reality star the Cake Boss, pricelessly parodying the baker's agitation at never having enough time to make cakes because he's too busy making cakes. Tompkins has a tendency to crack himself up, making his routine even funnier, at least when you find them funny in the first place. Otherwise it can get awkward.
Mary Lynn Rajskub had an amusingly scattered set revealing that as the computer genius on 24, all she was ever really typing were affirmations for herself. Kevin McDonald's whole routine was about what a bad idea it was for a sketch comic to do standup. Steve Agee did a hysterical and often disgusting set that he later repeated almost verbatim at Kristen Schaal's 10:30p.m. show at Cobb's.
At both shows the headliners doubled as emcees. While Tompkins's 90-minute show kept to tight 10-minute sets, Kristen Schaal and Friends went on for a generous two hours, with some comics visibly being prompted to wrap it up. Schaal herself was fabulous, coming out dressed as an obnoxiously raunchy male comic before unmasking herself, chiding, "You guys! That was me the whole time!" Schaal deftly toed a line between charmingly girlish and unnerving, with a priceless running gag about desperately scanning the crowd for her birth parents.
If anything, Agee's bit was funnier the second time around. Erin Foley's monologue about San Francisco's quirks felt like creaky standup pandering. The laid-back Eugene Mirman, who headlined the early show at Cobb's that night, told a shaggy-dog story about being held up by Mexican cops with Michael Stipe. Dr. Brown's amusing shtick as a stalling standup crippled by stage fright had the audience deeply divided. Beth Stelling's routine about body image was agreeable but forgettable, and shaggy-bearded Dan St. Germain's loud and confrontational act was eerily reminiscent of Schaal's earlier put-on persona. By 12:30a.m. it felt like Schaal's crack about having 400 guests wasn't much of an exaggeration.
Coming up, I'm looking forward to Bruce Campbell's evening with Army of Darkness; Celebrity Autobiography with superstar tell-alls acted out by other celebs including Janeane Garofalo, Fred Willard, and Rachel Dratch; Princess, a Prince cover band with Maya Rudolph; and Don't Let the Comedians Do Story Time!, in which the children's books of Mo Willems are turned into sketch comedy by a star-studded cast. Seriously, this thing is redonkulous. Check out the lineup if you don't mind your brain exploding.
SF Sketchfest runs through February 10, 2013 at various venues in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfsketchfest.com.
All photos: Jakub Mosur.